Police searched for a Russian sailor for three years after he allegedly imported $1.2 million worth of cocaine into New Zealand in 2016. Sam Hurley reports.

A wanted Russian sailor accused of smuggling cocaine into New Zealand for an international crime syndicate has been found on a container ship at Nelson's docks after a three-year hunt.

Several police officers were waiting for the Seatrade Red to arrive in the port at the top of the South Island during the weekend.

On board the incoming container ship was said to be their target, a Russian man named Aleksandr Cherushev.

He had been wanted by the National Organised Crime Group for three years, after being accused of importing $1.2 million worth of cocaine into New Zealand on board a food vessel in 2016.

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Police arrested Aleksandr Cherushev after he arrived in Nelson during the weekend on the Seatrade Red. Photo / Vessel Finder
Police arrested Aleksandr Cherushev after he arrived in Nelson during the weekend on the Seatrade Red. Photo / Vessel Finder

After the ship arrived police arrested Cherushev and searched his cabin on Sunday, a source familiar with the police investigation told the Herald.

Cherushev was then charged with importing and supplying cocaine and made his first appearance in the Nelson District Court on Monday.

He will be transferred to Auckland for his second court hearing later this month.

Police had been waiting to nab Cherushev after he was linked to an international criminal group, with a mystery West African mastermind, which was allegedly importing drugs into the country, court documents obtained by the Herald show.

Russian sailor Aleksandr Cherushev is accused of importing $1.2 million worth of cocaine into New Zealand in 2016. Photo / Supplied
Russian sailor Aleksandr Cherushev is accused of importing $1.2 million worth of cocaine into New Zealand in 2016. Photo / Supplied

The alleged conspiracy - which involved at least 10 people - stretched from New Zealand to Germany, eastern Europe, Ecuador and Venezuela, according to police.

The Herald has earlier revealed extensive details of the nearly two-year police investigation into the group, code-named Operation Moa.

Phone taps and covert surveillance teams were used by police to monitor several people, and also uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in dirty cash and somewhat of a treasure map to $130,000 buried at Auckland's Bastion Pt.

Cherushev's role, police allege, began on board the food vessel Discovery Bay in September 2016.

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The container ship Discovery Bay was implicated in a global drug smuggling operation in 2016. Photo / Supplied
The container ship Discovery Bay was implicated in a global drug smuggling operation in 2016. Photo / Supplied

The ship was travelling from South America and was due to dock in Auckland on the same day Polish father and son Ryszard, 57, and Ralph Wilk, 30, flew into New Zealand, court documents read.

Police accuse Cherushev of using the Discovery Bay's voyage to collect kiwifruit as a cover to hide a cocaine haul.

Court documents allege that when the Discovery Bay docked the Wilks met with and allegedly paid the Russian sailor for about 4kg of cocaine - worth $1.2m on the street.

A further meeting was allegedly held at a New World supermarket near Tauranga's port to pay Cherushev more money for his courier services, court documents allege.

Interpol arrested Ryszard Wilk in Venezuela last year. Photo / Interpol
Interpol arrested Ryszard Wilk in Venezuela last year. Photo / Interpol

Ryszard Wilk left New Zealand and was later arrested in the Venezuelan city of Maiquetía last year after Interpol issued a global wanted notice.

Kiwi authorities having been working with their Venezuelan counterparts to extradite him to New Zealand and face charges.

Court documents show several allegations against him for drug importation, drug supply, money laundering and conspiracy.

Political upheaval in the South American country, however, has slowed the process.

Ralph Wilk stayed in New Zealand and was arrested in mid-2017.

He was due to go to trial in September last year alongside local builder and the group's "bag man" Bryan Williams and Auckland IT engineer Mohammed Khan, who helped launder dirty money.

All three, however, pleaded guilty on the eve of their trial.

Ralph Wilk was jailed for nearly 10 years and will be deported upon his release. Photo / Sam Hurley
Ralph Wilk was jailed for nearly 10 years and will be deported upon his release. Photo / Sam Hurley

Ralph Wilk was sentenced to nine years and four months' imprisonment on two representative charges for supplying a Class A drug and money laundering.

Williams and Khan were both sentenced to home detention.

Polish man Patryk Lukasik, who is accused of acting as a point of contact for the Wilks, also left New Zealand but was later arrested in Germany.

His extradition was approved and the 42-year-old now faces trial in Auckland next year over money laundering and drug importation charges.

A woman who worked at a money remittance company on Queen St, Qiannan (Christina) Tang, was also charged with money laundering.

In June, a High Court jury found Tang guilty of one charge but acquitted her on a remaining eight counts.

She was discharged without conviction.